American Airlines Flight 198 was due to land at Milan Malpensa Airport early last Sunday morning, and my family was scheduled to be on it. My daughter, Alice, had achieved a lifelong goal of studying in Italy and was enrolled at Bocconi University. We were going to pick her up and whisk her off to eat casoncelli in Bergamo, visit a rice farm in Piedmont and a famous Parmigiano-Reggiano producer in Emilia-Romagna, gorge on prosciutto in Parma, and then celebrate her 21st birthday by waking up in the farmhouse of a Tuscan vineyard, cheesemaker and olive grove called Corzano e Paterno. We’d been saving for months.
But you know what happened next as the coronavirus catastrophe began to take shape. The trip was canceled. Alice’s semester abroad — an experience like the one that changed my life — was cut short. She thankfully made it home, though, healthy and safe.
In early March, I took my time to mope about what seemed important back then, the mere unraveling of a dream family vacation as a distant virus raged across the ocean. But that quickly turned to heartache and concern for my Italian friends as the crisis worsened. We began scrambling to get Alice home even sooner than expected. And then, by the time I sat at the counter of Marc Vetri’s new Fiorella on March 12, eating some extraordinary pastas for consolation just inches away from some stranger a few days before Philadelphia’s own shutdown and social distancing edict were to be enacted, it was clear the global nightmare was fast becoming ours, too. Coronavirus cases had just begun to be reported locally.
Even so, as I dove into plate after plate of perfect pasta (oh, that creamy, peppery tonnarelli cacio e pepe!), toasting Negronis with my neighbors at the counter and joking with the chefs, I had no real notion this would be my final meal inside an actual restaurant dining room for the foreseeable future. It seemed inconceivable, even as the idea was discussed. And yet, four days later, Vetri would close his restaurants to the public, joining the statewide shutdown of dining rooms and other nonessential businesses on March 16.
There are far more pressing issues now than lamenting the inability to dine in a restaurant — existential ones — such as whether many Philly restaurants will survive this crisis at all, and the horrific number of restaurant people suddenly out of work. COVID-19′s local toll on lives and the food industry keeps rising.
But the confluence of factors that final night at Fiorella — the cancelled trip, the persistent fears of all the unknowns to come and, especially, the anxiety of trying to get my daughter back safe from Europe — felt like a moment when all those personal concerns became part of something larger.
Good food on its own cannot solve the biggest problems. But it can help us to cope. And so I have been devouring — and making — so much pasta since. Call it comfort cooking, for sure. In my mind, every strand of toothy noodle is a small act of hopeful defiance, willing that somehow, some day, eating a plate of beautiful noodles will once again be a simple daily pleasure, one we can once more take for granted.
I certainly don’t take Philly’s pasta pros for granted, and I’ve been supporting as many of the restaurants that are trying to keep the lights on through take-out and delivery as possible. I’ve ordered the fantastic new take-out kits of fresh-extruded pasta with vacuum-sealed bags of mix-and-match sauces and meats from Little Noodle Co. through the Messina Social Club. I’m looking forward to also ordering soon from Cry Baby Pasta (chicken riggies!), DaMò Pasta Lab (tagliatelle Bolognese), Villa di Roma (spaghetti and meatballs plus an order of veal and eggplant Parm); L’Anima and Melograno (all’Amatriciana), Trattoria Carina (gemelli with pistachio pesto), and Fiorella’s, too, which has been selling out online orders of carry-out sausage ragù, cacio e pepe, and polenta-Taleggio ravioli.
Still, I’ve missed the shared communal energy of being in restaurants. And in a small way, being able to reach out to local chefs and having them talk me through some of their specialties so I can attempt to make their food has helped bring a glimmer of their magic home.
I set a sauté pan with wine, garlic, chile flakes and lemon to steam open dozens of littlenecks to try to re-create Michael Vincent Ferrari’s spaghetti alle vongole from Res Ipsa — then marveled as the al dente noodles magically thickened the sauce in the pan as they finished cooking.
And then I made Joe Cicala’s soulful lamb ragù from Cicala at the Divine Lorraine. We traded pictures of vintage pasta cutters by text as I rolled out Joe’s relatively easy fresh egg pasta recipe, then sliced those supple sheets into wide fazzoletti ribbons. Mine weren’t as pretty as his, whose edges were cut to look like Sardinian lace. But they still made a satisfying meal.
But a ray of hope hit my email inbox this week from Katiuscia Passeri, my contact at Corzano e Paterno. I’d reached out to her to see if everyone was OK, and she replied: “It is very important for all of us to feel the support of so many people all around the world. We are all safe here [at the winery]...,” she wrote. “Covid cases are decreasing. Life at the farm goes on, cheese making is in full production and we are still working a lot in the vineyards... Strongly hope to meet you next year and that you are all safe.”
Attached was a picture of her piece of Tuscan paradise taken that morning. Its old farmhouse stone walls were framed by blossoming flowers, budding trees and a bright blue sky. Spring has come to Italy, even in this moment of darkness.
Makes two quarts, or 8-10 servings
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
2 carrots, minced
2 stalks of celery, minced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 ½ pounds ground lamb
1 ¼ cup dry red wine
1 large can (53 ounces.) of whole San Marzano tomatoes (or 2 medium 28-ounce. cans)
2 sprigs rosemary, minced
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
In a large pot over medium heat, sweat the onions, carrots, celery, garlic and bay leaves in the olive oil. Once the onions are soft and translucent add the ground lamb. Break up the meat with a wooden spoon and sear the meat until brown. Deglaze the pot with red wine, scrape the bottom of the pan to release any fond. Reduce until nearly dry.
While the wine is reducing, open the can of tomatoes and pour into a large bowl. Hand crush the tomatoes and set aside. Fill the can with tap water until it’s about a third full. Stir the water to incorporate any tomato puree from the can. Once the wine has evaporated, add the tomatoes and water and set the flame to a simmer. Add rosemary, salt and pepper and let simmer for 2 hours, adding more water if needed. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
300 g/ 2⅜ cups 00 flour (at the restaurant, he uses a blend of 200 g/ 1⅔ cup 00-flour and 100 g/ ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons semolina)
3 extra large eggs
Place flours on a work surface (wood works best). Make a well in the center with your hands.
Add the eggs to the center and use a fork to beat them, slowly adding the flour from the outer rim. Once the mixture becomes pasty use a bench scraper to incorporate the remaining amount and knead for 5 minutes until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. Let dough rest for 20 minutes, then and pass through a pasta machine or use a rolling pin to roll out by hand, then cut to desired shape. To cut fazzoletti, which means “handkerchief,” cut the pasta with a roller into square sheets or wide ribbons.
From Joe Cicala, of Cicala at the Divine Lorraine
3-4 dozen littleneck or Manila clams, scrubbed
2 tablespoons corn meal
2 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped (1 clove per dozen)
1 ½ cups parsley, divided
½ teaspoon chile flakes
3 teaspoons lemon juice, divided
¾ cup dry white wine
1 pounds spaghetti
2 tablespoons butter
pinch of salt, to taste
Parmesan, to taste (Optional: traditional in Sicily, but not in the north)
An hour before cooking, soak clams in a bowl of cold water and scatter with cornmeal. The clams eat this and purge themselves in the process. Drain well and rinse under cold water before cooking. Discard any clams that have already opened.
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil the pasta. Meanwhile, get a large sauté pan with a lid to open the clams. Put the pan on medium-high, add the olive oil and then the clams. Top the clams with chopped garlic, chopped parsley, chile flakes and two teaspoons of the lemon juice. Add the wine and cover quickly.
Let the clams steam and cook until they are all fully open, about 6-8 minutes. Remove cooked clams and remove the meat from most of the shells, leaving 4-5 clams per person in the shell for garnish. Reserve under foil in some of the steamed broth to keep warm and moist.
Add spaghetti to pot and cook one minute shy of al dente, about six minutes. Drain pasta, and then add directly to the sauté pan with the clam juice over the heat. Add enough fresh water to the pan so the pasta is a little less than halfway covered, along with butter. Jiggle the pan to incorporate and let pasta finish cooking until al dente. It should absorb the juice and naturally thicken the sauce. Adjust seasoning for salt (carefully, since clams can be salty) add a pinch more chile, the remaining teaspoon of lemon juice, parsley and reserved clams. Toss and serve, with more parsley and grated Parmesan, if desired.